Best Lead Male Performance:
Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man
I found The Amazing Spider-Man to be one of the most unexpected treats of the summer, and an inordinate amount of the film’s creative success lies on Andrew Garfield’s shoulders. As Peter Parker, his vulnerable, nuanced work elevates this film far beyond typical superhero confines, allowing the movie to play just as well as a human-scale character study as it does a blockbuster action epic. I have always loved what Tobey Maguire did with this role, so I cannot say Garfield is the definitive Peter Parker, but among all leading men this summer, no one commanded the screen or elevated their material quite as well as Garfield.
Runners-Up: For his powerful, career-best performance in the severely underrated Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, Steve Carell would be my immediate runner-up. But there were plenty of other great choices for this category. If one considers Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans to be the male leads of The Avengers, either would be deserving of this title, both expanding upon the fantastic work they did in their solo films. Christian Bale, meanwhile, was utterly spectacular in The Dark Knight Rises, topping his performance in earlier Batman outings. Tommy Lee Jones did some of the most profound, human work of his career in Hope Springs, and young newcomer Jared Gilman was a tremendous find in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.
Best Lead Female Performance:
Aubrey Plaza as Darius Britt in Safety Not Guaranteed
This thoughtful art-house comedy was one of summer’s most underrated delights, and Aubrey Plaza’s role in making the film click cannot be overstated. This is a character I connect to on deeply meaningful levels, and Plaza brings Darius to life with a truly brilliant performance, making fantastic use of all the beloved offbeat affectations she’s known for while going so much deeper in showing where those ticks come from.
Darius isn’t just one of my new favorite film characters because I relate to her, but because Plaza possesses every trait a performer could wish to have, flawlessly illustrating the humor, pathos, and mindset of the character in every scene. She makes it all look so supremely natural that many, I worry, will overlook what a tremendous job she’s really doing. Not me. I have little doubt that among all female leads this summer, Plaza was the most impressive.
Runners-Up: This was, sadly, a very thin Summer for strong female leads. It was smaller, more obscure fare where women flourished this season, such as Keira Knightley’s utterly fantastic turn in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. It’s her best performance to date, a wounded, vulnerable, utterly human character impossible not to connect with. Meryl Streep turned in her best work in years in Hope Springs (much more impressive than her Oscar-winning turn in the hammy Iron Lady), and Kara Hayward was, like her co-star Gilman, a hugely impressive young lead in Moonrise Kingdom.
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